Australia, it used to be said, rode on the sheep’s back. In and around Winton nowadays, it’s dinosaurs.
Remains and footprints of dinosaurs more than 90 million years old now match the Outback town’s two other star attractions – the Waltzing Matilda Centre and local opals – and a full-size replica of a 10m-tall carnosaur stands in the Heritage-listed Corfield and Fitzmaurice Building on the main drag, Elderslie Street. Dinosaur bones are on show in glass cases, and even the litter bins on the street outside are shaped like a dinosaur’s lower legs. The colossal creatures feature in numerous souvenirs and on picture postcards.
Regular digs in the area known as the Australian Dinosaur Trail – around Winton, Hughenden and Richmond – have uncovered hundreds of the bones, many now in the Queensland Museum in Brisbane. A 1.6m-long thighbone of the largest dinosaur found in Australia, a sauropod, was found in 1999 by local grazier David Elliott on his Belmont Station; he called it Elliot, dropping the second ‘t’ because he wanted to give it a male first name. Excavations by Queensland Museum palaeontologists and Elliott’s Australian Age of Dinosaurs committee have found many more bones, including those of a female which they named Mary. Elliott reportedly has plans to build a new museum in Winton dedicated to the dinosaur.
Another star attraction lies 110km south-west of Winton at Lark Quarry Environmental Park, the site which contains astonishing evidence of a dinosaur stampede carbon-dated at 93 million years ago. Steven Spielberg is said to have based the dinosaur stampede in Jurassic Park on the Lark Quarry evidence.
More than 3300 fossilised footprints of some 150 coelurosaurs and oriothopods fleeing before a rampaging four-tonne, meat-eating theropod have been uncovered and are now protected inside the hangar-like Lark Quarry Dinosaur Trackways.
The footprints were first seen years ago by property manager Glen Seymour while fossicking for opals; he at first thought they were bird tracks but a friend, grazier Peter Knowles, suspected they belonged to dinosaurs. The Queensland Museum eventually confirmed this, and dated them.
The Trackways building is connected to the reception area by the 95m-long Bridge of Time, with plaques every few metres telling of Australia’s geological development.
Back in Winton, the ‘must-see’ stop for visitors is the Waltzing Matilda Centre, the world’s first museum dedicated to a song. Dagworth Station near Winton is where AJ ‘Banjo’ Patterson wrote Waltzing Matilda, and the centre opened in 1998 after the national song’s centenary celebrations. It presents interactive and technical displays, homestead buildings around a billabong, the Qantilda Museum, which tells of area’s pioneers, and the Regional Outback Gallery.
Visitors learn how the poet borrowed the name Banjo from a family horse because the suspected the editor of The Bulletin would reject his verses due to a political pamphlet he wrote earlier as AJ Patterson. A 12-minute holograph display features centre patrons who include such notables as Slim Dusty, Herb Elliott, Dick Smith – and Russell Crowe.
On the other side of Elderslie Street is the North Gregory Hotel, where Waltzing Matilda was first sung in 1895; the current 50-year-old building is the fourth hotel on the site, the other three having burned down. Close by is the Winton Opal Walk, one of many outlets for the brilliant local gemstones, behind which is an open-air cinema where the hit film The Proposition, starring Guy Pearce and made around Winton, premiered recently.
A popular trip from Winton is 120km to the home of the Boulder opal, Opalton, where visitors can try their luck fossicking. The largest piece of opal ever recorded, a pipe opal more than 3m long, was mined here in 1899. Another tour is to the giant rounded rocks of the Rangeland Rifts, seen in some scenes in The Proposition; the surrounding scenery is spectacular, especially at sunset.
Winton is also known as the official birthplace of Qantas – the only directors’ meeting here was held in February 1921, after which the fledgling airline’s HQ was moved 170km to Longreach.
Winton is in the centre of Matilda Country: large Mitchell Grass plains, where cattle and sheep graze, are broken by colourful gorges and ridges and jump-ups with a variety of flora and fauna. But visitors are likely to see more dead kangaroos than live ones, struck at night by passing cars.
Taking IN the trash
The Outback is noted for its far-out characters. Take Winton’s Arno Grotjahn, whose collection of junk has become a tourist attraction.
For years, Grotjahn, 75, has combed the piles of thrown-away items and other trash in the town dump, bringing it to his one-storey home. There, he’s embedded them into a 2m- high wall made of concrete and rock brought in from his opal-mining camp at Opalton 120km away. The L-shaped wall encloses his garden for a total of about 100m.
According to a billboard outside Grotjahn’s house headlined Arno’s Wall: This wall contains every engine from the start of mankind up to now – the whole history of machines, in other words the history of mankind.”
Maybe he exaggerates just a tad, but among the junk are three old motorcycles, a lawnmower, other small motors of various types, two sewing machines, a regular oven and a microwave, two typewriters, a cash till, a TV set, a toilet bowl and a mail box. Everything but the … no, wait, there is a kitchen sink.
But that’s not all. More junk decorates his front garden, much of it looking like the invention of a mad scientist. One item is a bizarre flying saucer fashioned from a huge drill, a metal gearbox, meters, dials and a box containing a garden gnome.
Grotjahn says it took him 15 years to make. Winton Council apparently looked upon his wall at first as something of an eyesore and moved to reject it, but then realised its tourism potential – and built a little park with flowerbeds outside the wall, to add to the tourists’ pleasure.”